Food, glorious (Italian) food!

Tomato shopping in an Italian grocery store.

Tomato shopping in an Italian grocery store.

Food is a perennial favorite topic here–actually more than perennial. It’s a daily interest for most of us! I had hoped to visit a cooking school in Sicily last summer, but could not fit it into my trip. However I did spend several wonderful hours in the kitchen of my Italian cousin, Anna Maria, as she prepared a late supper for us. The tomatoes of August were at their prime, and she chopped a chunky bowl of them, added sliced white onions and freshly minced garlic. A sprinkling of salt started the tomato juices running, and then in went some fresh basil and oregano from plants on the terrace. A splash of vinegar? I think that went in, too. My mouth is watering as I sit at my desk six months later remembering it. Olive oil topped it off, mixing with the juices to make a wonderful “dressing” for the salad.

Later, at the table, we dipped rustic bread into the juices. The tomato salad was one of several dishes at that dinner, but sticks most firmly in my memory–the simplicity, the freshness, the mouth-watering beauty of it. I’ve made it that way several times since then, and imagined what I might have learned in a cooking class.

I don’t get to Italy often enough (Is such a thing even possible?) so I was delighted to run across some Italian cooking schools in the USA. Have any of you been to one of these?

Rustico Cooking in New York City:  They offer classes and team-building experiences for up to 150 people (or as few as 12). Their website alone presents a culinary tour of Italy, with lots of indexed recipes, and descriptions of Italy’s various regions along with the food specialties from each.

Al Boccalino in Seattle: Luigi DeNunzio offers classes nearly every day at Al Boccalino, his Pioneer Square restaurant in downtown Seattle. The link leads you to the website, with a video tour led by Luigi, and information on classes, menus, and a foodie tour of Italy.

Little Italy in San Diego: Cooking demonstrations and hands-on cooking classes fill up fast. Classes incorporate foods and wine from various regions of Italy, made with fresh ingredients. Students participate in every step, from the shopping to the eating.

Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, Massachusetts: In the Boston area, Dave’s classes specialize in specific elements of Italian food. There’s a class on risotto and gnocchi, another on ravioli and stuffed pastas, and a class teaching you to make mozzarella cheese at home. The basic pasta and sauce classes fill up fast.

If you know of classes in your area, add a link in the comments! We’ll all be cooking Italian soon.

Little Italy in the Midwest: The Hill, St. Louis, MO

A statue honoring the Italian immigrants who settled in St. Louis.

Four million Italians immigrated to America between 1880 and 1920, creating little pockets of Italian culture, neighborhoods all over the USA known as “Little Italy”. I visited one such neighborhood in January, and here are some photos from “The Hill” in St. Louis.

The Italian colors are popular, from fire hydrants to eye-catching balloons.

You can learn Italian in the neighborhood:

Real estate is sold with an Italian flair, a red-white-green sign:

If you are longing for a blast of Italian culture, food, and style in the midwest, check out The Hill.

Ravioli Tostati–St. Louis Italian Food

My daughter and her husband moved to St. Louis, Missouri in early January, and three weeks later, we visited them, eager to see “The Hill”, St. Louis’ Little Italy. They took us out to dinner at Gian-Tony’s Ristorante, where I had my first taste of Ravioli Tostati.

This deep-fried ravioli is a tradition of St. Louis–but perhaps somewhere in Italy too, the cook accidentally knocked a raviolo into hot oil instead of water, inventing a crispy appetizer. I was told that several chefs on The Hill have claimed that fortunate mistake, sometime in the 1930s or ’40s. The popular dish is available in many parts of the Mid-west now, and some East Coast restaurants too.

So we enjoyed a plate of Ravioli Tostati before our dinner at Gian-Tony’s, dipping the crunchy squares in marinara sauce as we visited. I have to say, the cooks of St. Louis are on to something! Since coming home, I’ve looked for recipes, and am sharing links to a couple of them with you. Here’s a fast-food version from All-Recipes website. Charlie Gitto’s, one of the restaurants that claims the invention, provided this recipe on the Food Network website.